Guelph Innovation District has lofty goals

By Greg Mercer, Waterloo Region Technology Spotlight 2009

GUELPH – For the better part of a century, these acres on Guelph’s eastern edge were the ultimate self-sufficient community, with live-in workers who milked dairy cattle, raised crops and tended to orchards.

Today, the city is hoping to transform this same property with an ambitious project in the spirit of that original community, creating a green neighbourhood with room for thousands to live and work in cutting-edge jobs like biosciences or food research.

The only difference is this time the workers will be allowed to leave. The original workers couldn’t – they were inmates on the Ontario Reformatory, and their labour transformed the valley around the Eramosa River into picturesque ponds, gardens and farmland.

Although the former prison closed in 2003, some of the landscaping done by the inmates will be preserved by the Guelph Innovation District, a 1,000-acre swath of land that would be the home for a new life sciences cluster some hope will become the new pillar of the city’s economy.

The innovation district, still years away from construction, is one of Guelph’s most ambitious answers to projected population increases and a desired shift away from manufacturing to so-called sunrise jobs in emerging fields.

Those behind it aren’t naïve to the challenges. To succeed, the private sector needs to be willing to invest millions – on consultant pegged the cost of site preparation alone at around $100 million – and planners must create an attractive place to live and play, too.

But the innovation district has already attracted interest from some developers and institutions like the University of Guelph and Conestoga College, even if blue-sky job targets of up to 10,000 workers in the district might be admittedly high.

“The big question is ‘can we actually meet the employment targets?’ But you have to start with a goal,” said Barb Maly, with the city’s economic development office.

Guelph has never tried to create a complete community quite like this, and the planning, which began in 2005, is complex. Designers need to preserve heritage properties like the reformatory, which was built in 1910, appease private land owners, plan for high-density condos and businesses, protect green space around the Eramosa River, and figure out how to work with two big users already there – a massive Cargill Canada slaughterhouse and the city’s own waste processing facility.

Then there’s the city-owned rail line which runs through the proposed district, which senior policy planner Joan Jylanne says could one day be a high-speed link to downtown.  Not that the residents would need to leave – early designs call for restaurants and grocery stores for the workers who would live only a quick walk from their jobs.

Self-sufficiency is a major theme behind the planning.  Even Cargill is getting in on the act. They want to build a “bio-digester” which would produce power for the planned community by using animal waste left over from their processing operations.

“The inmates at the reformatory were completely self-sufficient. They raised their own food, made their own power, and had everything they needed here.  Now everything has come full circle again,” said Jylian. “This is a new era.”

Guelph hopes the Innovation District will become the heart of an agricultural and environmental technology cluster, where fledgling starts-ups and established, multinational companies can work and do research side-by-side.

“McMaster has its health cluster, Waterloo has its tech cluster, and Guelph has its agri-foods and environment cluster,” said Maly. “We’re building on our strengths.”

The city seems to have the backing of both provincial and federal officials.

In June, the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade gave $85,000 to create an economic development plan aimed at drawing foreign investment for the project.  Meantime, planning work rolls on – designers hope to have conceptual models unveiled this fall, so people can start to imagine what the district would look like in 20 years.

There’s still another five to 10 years of planning before bulldozers can be moved in. And Guelph is in a bit of a race against time – it’s not the only city trying to shift its economy away from traditional manufacturing toward green economy companies.

“It’s in competition with hundreds of other jurisdictions who want to build the jobs of the future,” said Jim Wadleigh, executive director of the Guelph Partnership for Innovation, a non-profit group that helps agricultural technology start-ups bring their ideas and research to the marketplace.

But his group is behind the project, saying the city needs a place where its life-sciences companies and researchers can have more interaction with each other, a place where ideas are shared, partnerships formed, and hopefully, jobs grow.

“It’s going to be challenging,” he said. “But this is a real opportunity to take Guelph forward.”

Fact box:
Guelph Innovation District, by the numbers:
*1,053 acres
*20 years, rough time frame for development
*$1-billion (estimated private and public sector costs over that span)
*Space for 3,000 – 5,000 residents
*Home to between 8,000 – 10,000 jobs

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